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Using Lyons' legacy

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One of the more surprising statements in the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition agreement was the promise to undertake ‘a full review of local government finance’.

There was a time, perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, when such a commitment would have stimulated great excitement - the gears of reform grinding slowly into action.

But after successive false dawns - first Raynsford, then Lyons - even confirmed optimists might now be sceptical that their glasses really are looking distinctly half-empty.

The phrasing ‘a full review’ feels particularly misplaced. Are we seriously saying that now might be a good time to contemplate options for radical funding reforms?

If ever there was a case for seeking to create conditions of stability rather than change in local government, now is surely that time as councils prepare to play their part in the national effort to rebalance the public finances.

So can a review serve any useful purpose? Can it tell us anything we don’t already know or produce any solutions that feel relevant and timely for the new austere climate?

It would certainly be crazy simply to repeat all of the very thorough work undertaken by Sir Michael Lyons’ inquiry.

Much more logically, the Lyons’ report should be placed on the table and the review should ask which of its 76 recommendations continue to have resonance in the face of the current extreme challenges. That might just focus attention on some of the areas in which the inquiry addressed relationships between central and local government.

Freeing councils to concentrate on leading their communities through a very difficult transition feels like a banner for the times.

A new review would provide a vehicle for designing a much more minimalist approach to central oversight of council decision-making and for equipping local authorities with the full range of tools to do the job.

Perhaps there is more beer in this glass than I thought!

Steve Freer, chief executive, Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy

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